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Gun Control Has Always Been Racist — That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Support the Parkland Students’ Movement

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In the brief time since the massacre on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teenage survivors have faced down platitude-spewing Republicans, instigated calls for a nationwide school walkout, and organized a march of 500,000-plus people for next month. Their strength is radical, but their expressed goals so far are not. The MSD students have a list of standard liberal reforms in mind, such as an assault rifles ban and strengthened background checks for gun ownership.

These goals, however, are likely to be met with skepticism from those left of the Democratic Party. Just as reliable as empty offerings of “thoughts and prayers,” some on the left will point to the racist history and application of gun control legislation — and highlight the deadliness of armed police.

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While the left’s concerns about gun control, race, and state-sanctioned violence are valid, to cast aside the MSD students because of these concerns would be folly. The students’ boldness and willingness to challenge the grim American status quo — their ability to “call B.S.,” in the words of Parkland student Emma Gonzalez – suggests that their would-be movement won’t be limited to centrist Democrat lines on gun control.

Gun control has long been a shaky dividing line between liberals and the far left.

Gun control has long been a shaky dividing line between liberals and the far left. But, focused on Democratic and Republican partisanship, the national conversation after mass shootings usually ignores these distinctions.

The left position is based on two factors: an outmoded romanticism about armed revolution and, more importantly, the history of gun laws in disempowering and disenfranchising people of color. Reconstruction-era “black codes” in the South disarmed emancipated African-Americans in service of maintaining white supremacy. During the civil rights era, the 1967 Mulford Act prohibiting open carry was a direct (Republican-led) response to the Black Panther Party.

Yet a racist legislative history does not always entail a racist future, and there’s no denying that the more guns are in the hands of white supremacists, the greater the risk to people of color. Far-right extremists, after all, were responsible for 71 percent of domestic extremist killings in 2017, according to an Anti-Defamation League report.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason to think new legislation and bolstered government profiling in the name of gun control would suddenly take aim at dangerous white supremacists, instead of continuing to criminalize people of color. As anarchist author Margaret Killjoy, writing in support of the students’ efforts, noted on the issue, “I think anyone serious about living in a less armed society who expects lawmakers to deliver that is going to be disappointed. They will be disappointed by who new laws target and who they don’t.”

None of this is to say that a society with fewer guns isn’t a noble goal, but it must be coupled with a skepticism of state power that has frequently manifested gun control toward oppressing the already marginalized. It is of no fault on the part of traumatized teenagers that their impressive activism has not culminated, less than three weeks after they hid from bullets, into a coherent critique of the state. But for us supposed adults to ignore the traumatic history of guns and race in America would be irresponsible.

Students from Montgomery Blair High School march down Colesville Road in support of gun reform legislation Feb. 21, 2018, in Silver Spring, Md.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The biggest problem with any uncritical push for gun control can be revealed by a quick glance at the past — and present — of the nation’s police. The direction the students’ #NeverAgain push takes on this issue is crucial if it is to grow into a broad, intersectional youth movement. And taking aim at violence carried out by police also speaks to the students concerns: the killings of young people attributable to guns.

Many more people have died from police officer’s bullets in the past six years than have perished at the hands of school shooters. Although not organized into age demographics, the police killed over 1,100 people last year alone, a quarter of whom were black. Despite the lesser death tolls, school shootings remain intolerable, but there are lessons to be drawn from the different reactions to killings in school and killings by police.

When the black youth of Ferguson and Baltimore rose up to march for their lives against racist police violence, they were demonized and met with distrust. The spectacle of militarized police occupying Ferguson prompted some mainstream liberal concern — the Obama administration banned the sale of certain military-grade weapons to police departments — but even this modest reform proved fickle after the Trump administration quickly rolled it back. Leaving aside these fleeting reforms of warlike optics, the liberal debate about gun violence has never addressed the deadly problem of armed police.

The liberal debate about gun violence has never addressed the deadly problem of armed police.

Radical progressives see an injustice — perhaps a disingenuousness — in the mainstream Democratic Party rallying cries against gun violence absent the discussion of prolific state harm to poor, black children. Even your favorite septuagenarian would-be Democratic socialist is unlikely to raise serious questions about police officers’ guns amid their calls for gun control. But that doesn’t mean that a diverse youth movement, unbeholden to realpolitik maneuvering, wouldn’t see the sense in disarming the police.

The Parkland teenagers organizing the “March for Our Lives” rallies and walkouts have already shown a tenacity and strength that goes far beyond the Democratic Party line. They have been unabashed about shaming NRA-backed politicians to their faces on national television — stomping where kowtowing journalists dare not tread. Faced with threats of reprisals and suspensions from school districts around the country, thousands of kids are still planning to walk out of class, choosing disobedience, solidarity, and the rejection of arbitrary, unjust authority. Even if just for a day, the disregard for this authority is promising.

The now-famous speech delivered by Gonzalez revealed more than an articulate and pained teen taking up the liberal gun control line. Her words were infused with anger toward and irreverence for a system of power. She called B.S. — and to call B.S. on gun violence in America, taken to its logical conclusion, will call B.S. not only on Republicans, President Donald Trump, and National Rifle Association, but also on police impunity and the hypocrisy of mainstream liberals’ limitations on racism and toxic masculinity. Democrats keen to co-opt #NeverAgain for political gain should be ready to have these kids call B.S. on them, too.

Top photo: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 17, 2018.

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